In contrast to his commanding and enigmatic stage presence, which always involves a suit that reiterates his existence as an esports icon, Afreeca Freecs coach Choi "iloveoov" Yeon-sung was dressed down in a heather grey t-shirt. His charges, the entire lineup of the Afreeca Freecs League of Legends team, were all clad in their summer uniforms to watch KT Rolster take on Griffin in the 2018 LoL Champions Korea Summer finals. They were ready for the potential photo op: if KT won, Afreeca would qualify for the 2018 League of Legends World Championship on championship points. With every small KT victory, iloveoov, junglers Lee "Spirit" Da-yoon and Lee "Mowgli" Jae-ha, and bot laner Ha "Kramer" Jong-hun pumped their fists and yelled.
Once KT took the lead in Game 5, Griffin was defeated fairly quickly. Afreeca filmed its team's reaction to the Worlds qualification. Afreeca's screams devolving into howls of happiness as they jumped up and down, hugging each other at random -- coach, player, staff member -- at the win. The team took to Twitter with a pointed "Sa rang hae yo K T," (I love you KT) and reaction photographs. It was only fair. Earlier in the playoff gauntlet, it had been the Afreeca Freecs who defeated Kingzone DragonX, sending KT to Worlds by eliminating its closest championship points competitor in Kingzone.
"A pleasant victory or a sweet revenge," was the tagline for Afreeca's playoff gauntlet match against Kingzone DragonX. It was a rematch of the 2018 LCK Spring Finals where Afreeca managed to draw first blood but were outmatched by Kingzone and bot laner Kim "PraY" Jong-in's Kai'sa. In all of their 2018 meetings, Afreeca had never defeated Kingzone in a series, and had only taken three games off of Kingzone in total. This was Afreeca's sweet revenge.
"If there is such thing as 'Super Effective' between players, they would have been it," Spirit joked after Afreeca's unlikely playoff win against Kingzone. "We've finally conquered our bad matchups today, so I'm hopeful that we can continue winning against Kingzone from now on."
Weeks before the Kingzone victory, Afreeca was not the team that most wanted to see represent South Korea on home soil. Kingzone and KT seemed shoo-ins based on points, and the community was hoping for rookie upstart Griffin or a miraculous run from the perennially popular Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok and his SK Telecom T1. Afreeca struggled in some of the team's latter series in the 2018 LCK Summer regular season, and didn't seem to have any sort of defining playstyle, leading to a fifth place finish. The team threw everything at the figurative wall and none of it stuck, leaving an Afreeca team that was a shadow of its exciting spring self that focused on aggressive skirmishing around mid laner Lee "Kuro" Seo-haeng and support Park "TusiN" Jong-ik. This all changed with time and preparation for playoffs.
"The difference between the regular split and the playoffs is...we've been practising in different directions, had our period of trial-and-error, and I think these times have finally led us to this current 'complete' state as a team," Spirit said after the team upset Kingzone DragonX in the playoff gauntlet. "Also, we've been playing [playoffs] with a mindset that we have nothing to lose, and I think it has turned out well."
A veteran jungler and player, Spirit was quietly Afreeca's hero in the Kingzone series, eschewing some of his traditional, slower-scaling powerfarming -- a style that has exemplified him as a player since his Samsung Galaxy Blue days -- for a more proactive early game approach. This stymied Kingzone, especially when Spirit caught Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon's roams to mid lane and tracked jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho's early-game pathing. Spirit credited this coordinated pathing to better team communication for Afreeca, again due to the team's hard work in preparing for playoffs specifically.
"I've been keep thinking about my playstyle in the context of catering for my team, allow an easier time for my teammates," Spirit said. "I believe this has slowly been shifting my playstyle [towards aggression]."
Along with Kuro in the mid lane, Spirit has become an important pivot point for Afreeca to flex team resources into its side lanes, especially towards top laner Kim "Kiin" Gi-in who has become one of South Korea's premier players. Spirit will default to his traditional, farm-heavy style, but has become flexible enough alongside bot laner Kramer so that Kuro doesn't have to be the only player on the main roster who sacrifices resources from game-to-game. Despite standout individual performances while on Samsung Blue and Team WE, Spirit was humble, mentioning the team's improvement above all else.
"I've never believed that I was at the top of any region before. I've never thought of myself as a 'top tier' jungler," Spirit said. "I think that actually is my motivation; that I should try to be at the top some day. I continue playing with my faith in [becoming a top-tier jungler] some day."
He added that his most important job as a jungler is to receive information and communicate with a cool head while prioritizing what needs to be addressed for the team first. This, coupled with iloveoov's targeted drafting and overall team preparation, is what made Afreeca successful in most of the team's summer playoff series.
Although Afreeca later lost to Griffin in a five game, back-and-forth series, the team's preparation was still apparent. Afreeca had arguably better macro than Griffin, but lost in 5v5 teamfights, and sometimes still failed to push advantages, leaving it up to KT as to whether Afreeca could qualify without making a gauntlet run. Now bound for the World Championship, Afreeca is as interesting of a team as South Korea can offer and wildly different from KT in terms of playstyle.